To Walk under a Ladder

The fear of walking under a ladder is one of the most widely known superstitions still observed in Christian and non-Christian countries. The many beliefs of various cultures, linked with the ladder, indicate how far back symbolic and religious ideas underlying these superstitions go. 

Already, the ancient Sumerians (circa 3000 BCE) viewed the ladder with fearful reverence and saw it as a symbol of the way to the gods, depicting an ‘ascent to goodness’. To the ancient Egyptians, the ladder represented a means by which the dead could gain access to the netherworld. The Egyptian god, Osiris, used a ladder that his father, Ra, created to ascend into heaven, the ladder representing a transition from the material world to a higher consciousness. The Greek philosopher, Plotinus, preached about the ‘Ladder of Virtues’, the progress towards perfection taken step by step or rung on rung. The same ideas are expressed in Dante’s Paradiso.102 During the Middle Ages, religious symbolism was especially plentiful in representations of ladders surmounted by a great variety of sacred symbols, such as the Cross, the Trinity, the Star of Bethlehem, and angels. 

Inevitably, all ancient symbolism and reverent apprehension surrounding ladders must have led to the belief that walking under a ladder propped up against a wall is unlucky. The original ancient reasons, however, have been lost and substituted by many ones dating to a much later time. 

Although the fearful belief of walking under a ladder is very ancient, it has been linked to the devil since the spread of Christianity. A ladder leaning against a wall was perceived to form a natural triangle with the wall and the ground. To walk through such a triangle not only showed great disrespect for God, but also, above all, indicated an alliance with the devil, as the triangle was seen to symbolise the Holy Trinity. All God-fearing persons considered themselves barred from passing through this sacred arch. 

Another explanation often given for the ill-luck related to walking under ladders is that in the old type of gallows, a ladder was propped up against the supporting beam. Someone about to be hanged was forced to climb the fateful rungs to reach the noose, hence the ladder’s association with bad luck. Alternatively, those about to be executed were walked under the ladder to reach the rungs; hence walking under a ladder was linked with death.

A further explanation holds that the belief comes from a wide-ranging taboo that applies to walking under many objects. The fear of walking under ladders might be the survivor of the so-called head taboo, known and practised by the ancient Persians and still practised by many native races. The underlying reason for this curious belief is connected with the notion that the head is the seat of the spirit, and nothing should ever overshadow it or be placed over it. A taboo amongst Aboriginal societies in Australia, the Solomon Islands, Burma, and most South Pacific countries was for males never to walk under sharply leaning trees or any other objects. The Cambodian natives, for example, will never let anything be suspended over their heads and will desperately avoid places where this could naturally occur. 

Superstitious notions concerning the ladder extend further than merely walking under it. Some believe that even reaching through or handing anything over the rungs is ill-fated. However, if a ladder has an odd number of rungs, it can bring the climber good luck, as odd numbers are linked with good fortune. To slip on a rung, however, means a financial setback. To step between the rungs of a ladder lying on the ground is still considered unlucky. To avert the ill luck attracted by walking under a ladder, fingers should immediately be crossed or the sign of the cross made. 

The superstition about walking under ladders is still prevalent in modern times, and it is interesting to observe how city people would rather step out onto a busy street to walk around a ladder placed across the sidewalk than walk under it. 


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App